Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Jun 15 2017

What Speech is Legally Protected?

Published by under Culture and Society

free-speech2Ken White, a first amendment attorney and proponent, has an excellent op-ed in the LA-Times about the law and free speech. It’s a necessary read for anyone interested in the ongoing debate about the role and limits of free speech in America.

The article is framed around pointing out common free-speech tropes, which is a good way to communicate about such topics. However, the scope of the article doesn’t really address the debate itself, it only provides a solid logical and legal framework for the debate. This is necessary to get the discussion to the point where it needs to be in order to address the actual issues, without getting distracted by legal myths.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment protection of free speech is based on the principle that a free and open society requires individual citizens to have the space and comfort to express their opinions without fear of oppression. White points out that the courts have generously interpreted this right over the years. Essentially all speech is protected except for very specific exceptions, which he lists as: “obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, true threats and speech integral to already criminal conduct. ”

You will notice that “hate speech” is not on the list. The courts have recognized that any speech which might be part of political expression must be protected, and that the speech which most needs protection is that which some or even most people will find objectionable.

Interestingly, the go-to example of not-protected speech that most often comes up, crying “fire” is a crowded theater, is actually protected. The current precedent is that the “incitement” criterion must be direct and immediate – “You, go kill that guy right there,” Indirect or vague incitements, or speech that might inspire someone to do something illegal or harmful, are still protected.

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May 15 2017

MMA vs Wushu – A Fight Between Reality and Fantasy

MMAvsWushuWhen magic and fantasy come up against hard reality, reality wins. One clear demonstration of this are literal fights between fantasy and reality.

There are now multiple videos online of fights between mixed martial arts fighters (MMA) and various forms of traditional Chinese martial arts. They all go the same way – the MMA fighters demolish the traditional fighters in seconds.

At the extreme end of the traditional fighters are the chi masters. They claim that they can channel their magical life force, chi, to weaken, block, and even incapacitate their foes. The first part of this video shows a chi master in action. You can see how apparently effective chi is against indoctrinated students (who have “drunk the dojo koolaid”). In the second half of the video you can see how spectacularly ineffective chi is against an MMA fighter.

In a similar recent competition, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong had an open challenge to any traditional fighter, and Wei Lei, a practitioner of the “thunder style” of tai chi, accepted his challenge. The fight went like all the others- Wei Lei was crushed in 10 seconds.

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55 responses so far

May 12 2017

Rational Arguments for God?

BuddhismI honestly don’t care what people choose to believe about unknowable speculations outside the realm of science and human knowledge. As long as they don’t use such belief as justification for public policy or to infringe on the rights of others, believe whatever you want.

However, once someone claims that they have scientific evidence for a supernatural belief, or can prove such a belief logically, then they have stepped into the arena of logic and science and their claims can be examined.

One such claim is that the existence of God can be proven through various logical arguments. I have never seen such an argument that I found even slightly compelling. They all have gaping holes in their logic. The latest incarnation comes from Robert Nelson, who appears to be promoting his 2015 book, “God? Very Probably.”  He claims to have five rational arguments that lead to the conclusion that God very probably exists. Let’s take a look. Continue Reading »

281 responses so far

Apr 18 2017

Is Alex Jones Faking?

alex-jonesAlex Jones is famous for his Infowars program in which he, often red-faced and ranting, promotes all kinds of absurd conspiracy theories. He claims the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false flag” operation (and pretty much every similar event – all staged by the government. He claimed that Obama and Hillary Clinton were literally demons.

The enduring question (at least for me) has been – to what extent does Jones actually believe the stuff that he says? I phrase it that way because belief is not necessarily binary (I don’t want to commit a false dichotomy logical fallacy). He may believe some of the stuff he says to some extent, but then exaggerates and gets into speculation, or simply not care about the veracity of his claims.

Clearly he has a shtick and it’s paying off well for him.

I have not taken on Jones directly (I have addressed many of the claims he supports) because I haven’t found it to be worthwhile so far. His character is clearly a nutjob, to put it bluntly, and I suspected not entirely sincere, and overall I thought it best to ignore him.

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132 responses so far

Apr 07 2017

$100 Million? It’s Going to Take More Than That

Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board of eBay, speaks at the eBay Developer's Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. (Photo by JB Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the world’s richest men. He recently announced that his philanthropic investment firm will dedicate $100 million to combat the “global trust deficit.” By this he means the current lack of trust in information and institutions born by the age of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts.

I agree that this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and tackled, but I hope that he is just getting started with the $100 million, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. I also don’t think we can rely on a few philanthropists to fix this problem.

As an aside I find it historically interesting that the internet boom lead to a crop of very young very rich people, not only Omidyar but also Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and others. Omidyar notes that:

“We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’,” he said of his overnight fortune.

“I had the notion that, okay, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realise that you could buy all of them, none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

So we have a crop of young bored billionaires looking to change the world. I think that’s cool.  I hope they succeed.

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50 responses so far

Mar 20 2017

The Need for Publicly Funded Science

Trump-ScienceThe American scientific community is in a bit of a panic over Trump’s first proposed budget. The budget calls for an 18% decrease ($5.8 billion) for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There are deep cuts in energy research and Earth science as well.

The reaction of the scientific community has been consistent – such cuts would be disastrous.

It probably comes as no surprise that science is expensive. This is despite the fact that scientists are generally paid very little, especially when compared to their years of training. Science is a career of passion. But maintaining a lab or conductive field research can be very expensive. Research often requires expensive equipment and materials, lab space, support staff, and lots of time.

Research is not just something that scientists do – it requires extensive infrastructure. That infrastructure needs to be maintained mostly with one-off grants. The vast majority of scientific research will not directly generate profits for the researchers, the lab, or the supporting institution. Keeping a lab going is like keeping plates spinning, the researchers are constantly applying for grants and weaving together the funding they need.

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46 responses so far

Mar 17 2017


Published by under Culture and Society

microaggressions2I have to say, from the first time I heard the term “microaggression” I didn’t like it. Something deeply bothered me about the concept, but I kept an open mind as I tried to understand how it was being defined and used.

A recent article by Scott Lilienfield (who is a friend of mine and has written for SBM) put into technical terms much of my vague discomfort with the concept.

Here is how one article supportive of the concept defines microaggressions:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.

They give some specific examples:

• A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).

• A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).

• Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)

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133 responses so far

Feb 23 2017

Natural News Delisted from Google

natural-news-pseudoscienceIt appears that Google has removed all Natural News content from their indexing. This means that Natural News pages will not appear in organic Google searches.

This is big news for skeptics, but it is also complicated and sure to spark vigorous discussion.

For those who may not know, Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, is a crank conspiracy theorist supreme. He hawks snake oil on his site that he markets partly by spreading the worst medical misinformation on the net. He also routinely personally attacks his critics. He has launched a smear-campaign against my colleague, David Gorski, for example.

A few years ago Adams put up a post in which he listed people who support the science of GMOs to the public, comparing them to Nazis and arguing that it would be ethical (even a moral obligation) to kill them. So he essentially made a kill-list for his conspiracy-addled followers. Mine was one of the names on that list, as were other journalists and science-communicators.

In short Adams is a dangerous loon spreading misinformation and harmful conspiracy theories in order to sell snake oil, and will smear and threaten those who call him out. He is an active menace to the health of the public.

Adams is a good example of the dark underbelly of social media. It makes it possible to build a massive empire out of click-bait and sensationalism.

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126 responses so far

Dec 16 2016

Facebook Takes On Fake News

Published by under Culture and Society

facebook1Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that his platform is now going to have third parties review news stories and news sources and label what they think is “fake news.” Facebook will then demote those stories in their news feed.

They have tapped Snopes,, ABC News, and PolitiFact to be their third-party reviewers.

While this move has been controversial, I think it’s a fantastic idea, although of course not without its risk.

In the last decade we have been moving away from traditional edited sources of news to social media, which blends news and opinion and has essentially removed any editorial barriers. This has been a boon to content producers, with many upsides. The barrier to sharing your information or opinions with the world has essentially been removed. This has led to many great things, like scientists sharing their field of expertise with the public.

There is also somewhat of a meritocracy, with quality writers rising in popularity. People have access to much more information and many more viewpoints.

However, the barrier has also been removed for spreading misinformation. Content creators and websites have sprung up catering to every extreme ideology. This is nothing new but in the past marginalized ideas had marginalized distributions. This too was a double-edged sword – it kept out a lot of nonsense, but also made it difficult (but not impossible) for minority but legitimate opinions to be heard. Without barriers, every voice can potentially be heard, but it became more difficult to distinguish real news from fake news, mainstream from fringe opinions, facts from misinformation, and quality journalism from ideological hack jobs.

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98 responses so far

Dec 08 2016

Scientists – Welcome to the Skeptical Movement

sterling-law-buildingDonald Trump has just named Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA. Pruitt is a known denier of the science of anthropogenic global warming, and in fact has spent much of his time as attorney general suing the EPA over the issue. The conspiracy theorists are now running the show.

This is just the latest in what has been an eye-opening year, which has seen “post-truth” named as word of the year, and has also seen a surge in the notion of “fake news”.

In a recent editorial published in Nature, scientist Phil Williamson argues that:

Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.

He recounts that his awakening occurred after he had a run-in with Brietbart news over their gross misrepresentation of the science of global warming and ocean acidification. Now he is on a crusade to fight back against pseudoscience online.

For greatest effect, I suggest that we harness the collective power and reach of the Internet to improve its quality. The global scientific community could learn from websites such as travel-review site TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes (which summarizes film and play reviews) and (which quantifies website popularity), and set up its own, moderated, rating system for websites that claim to report on science. We could call it the Scientific Honesty and Integrity Tracker, and give online nonsense the SHAIT rating it deserves.

While I completely agree with Williamson that this is a problem and the scientific community should take responsibility for it, I was struck by the complete absence of awareness in his editorial that there is already a movement of scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts who are doing this – the skeptical movement.  Continue Reading »

193 responses so far

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